As fires rage, Congress debates forest policy – but will it do a - KXLH.com | Helena, Montana

As fires rage, Congress debates forest policy – but will it do anything?

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As fires rage in Montana’s forests this summer, the debate over the role and effect of forest policy is raging as well – but it’s uncertain whether and what Congress will do to change anything.

Montana’s two Republican members of Congress say good forest management has been handcuffed by environmentalists’ lawsuits, and that it’s time to make it harder to challenge logging projects that remove dead and dying timber before it burns.

“These radical environmentalists have prevented hard-working Montanans from having jobs, and this just adds more fuel, literally, to these wildfires,” U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said on the floor of the Senate Wednesday. “If you do not manage the forests, they become unhealthy, they become prone to wildfire.”

GOP lawmakers have been making these claims for years, but legislation to restrict environmental lawsuits has failed to pass.

This year, however, with fires consuming hundreds of thousands of acres in Montana and elsewhere, they say the chances for passing a bill may be better – and that President Donald Trump would sign it.

“I stood on the House floor today and showed a picture from Mount Sentinel looking toward Lolo, with the fires raging,” U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte told MTN News Thursday. “I can’t tell you how many congressional members came up to me afterward and said, `I had no idea’ …

“When I shared the fact that over 900,000 acres had burned in Montana this summer, they were shocked. I think we’ll get support for this.”

Daines and Gianforte support elements of a bill in the House that would streamline the review for more logging projects, and restrict environmental lawsuits.

Whatever may pass the GOP-controlled House, however, faces a tougher road in the Senate, where it could take a super-majority of 60 votes to enact something.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., says he agrees that some timber projects should be subject to more streamlined review.

But he says the bigger problem is the Forest Service budget, more and more of which is getting consumed by firefighting costs, leaving less money to prepare logging projects and take care of other duties.

The cost of fighting catastrophic fires should be handled separately, like disaster funding, Tester says, leaving the Forest Service budget to handle its management tasks.

“We get that problem solved (and) I think this problem goes away, as far as lawsuits, because the Forest Service will have the money to be able to do these projects, and do them right, with adequate public input,” he told MTN News.

The Forest Service says 52 percent of its budget went to fire “suppression” in 2015, compared to just 16 percent 20 years earlier.

Gianforte said the House forest-management bill addresses this problem somewhat, by allowing disaster funds to be used to pay for “catastrophic” fires.

While Congress has its plate full with big issues this fall – hurricane aid, tax reform, the debt ceiling -- Daines has suggested that forest-management reform could get inserted into a must-pass bill, as an amendment.

Still, opponents of restricting forest litigation aren’t lying down, and say any such bill is essentially restricting the voice of citizens to influence their government.

“The First Amendment gives the right for citizens to challenge the government,” says Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a Montana group that has filed many lawsuits challenging timber projects on the grounds that they don’t properly consider wildlife habitat. “I think a lot of members of Congress are reluctant to pass a law that violates the First Amendment. … that’s how democracy works.”

Garrity also says it’s simply wrong to suggest that more logging translates into lesser or less intense forest fires.

“Fires burn faster if there are less trees,” he told MTN News Thursday. “If you thin a forest, more sunlight hits the forest floor, more wind can go through, the fire will burn faster. There is no science to bank up the idea that logging somehow prevents fire.”

The real culprit is climate change, he says, and hotter, drier weather – and Congress doesn’t seem to be interested in addressing that problem.

“They’re making climate change worse by promoting coal mining and burning fossil fuels, so instead of admitting that, it’s easy to blame someone else,” Garrity says. “It’s easy to call a citizen names, like `extremist’ or `radical,’ and then all of a sudden it’s my fault, rather than theirs.”

More than 4,000 firefighters (rural, volunteer, state, military, federal, and more) have been involved in the battle against the fires this season; two of them lost their lives fighting fires in western Montana.

As of Thursday, an estimated 1,005,803 acres have burned in Montana in 2017. The number of acres burned by lightning-caused fires is 914,574; the acres burned by human-caused fires is 91,229.

The total number of wildfires so far this year is 1,687. Of those, 746 were lightning-sparked, and 951 were caused by people/vehicles. 

The figures come from the Northern Rockies Coordination Center, which is part of the National Interagency Fire Center. The number of fires and acreage is slightly less than the figures reported by the agency on Wednesday, due in part to more accurate mapping of fire perimeters.

According to Bullock's office, the cost of fighting the fires has reached about $284 million so far in 2017; an estimated $53 million of that came directly from the state budget, and the rest from federal monies.

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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